When my husband first announced that he was leaving me, there were no packed bags.
Portrait of Bindo Altoviti by Raphael
When my husband first announced that he was leaving me, there were no packed bags. No studio apartment had already been leased on the other, seedier side of town. There were no missing photo albums or Le Creuset pots. But I don’t know why he would have taken those things anyway. It would be a gradual process, he told me. He couldn’t just up and leave me all at once, no matter how unhappy he was.
First, it was his hands. Three days after he announced that he was going to leave me, I watched him drinking his coffee and noticed how his three middle fingers were slipped through the handle, gripping the body of the mug in a confident, almost loving way. I didn’t recognize those strong fingers. Next, it was his voice. You aren’t going to leave me today, are you? I asked, turning to him in bed one morning three weeks after his announcement. Not today, he said. And his voice was not groggy and irritated and heavy with morning. It was rich and full, a voice I had never heard before. Next, flecks of brown and gold started to flash in his eyes. He would look at me, and those flecks were like little daggers of earnestness flaring out at me and waving hello from some new, secret place.
In my mind, I secretly sort and catalog each way his body changes. The sudden, hard bulge beneath his shirtsleeves arrives on a Tuesday in October. The white teeth and the flexible toes in December, like Christmas. The vibrant ridge of his backbone. The happy earlobes.
It has been months. Maybe years. He faces the shower head now, bold and unabashed in the strong spray. He is a very tall man now with shoulders that stretch against the horizon. He eats steak and he exercises. We go to the movies and listen to music. A rich, olive tone has settled across his skin. His arms are strong and certain, no longer pale and wiry thin. When I smile, he smiles. Look at that little cat, he said the other morning. I joined him at the kitchen window and we watched the little cat slink across the street. We do that. We stand next to each other in the morning light and watch tiny, insignificant things happen right there in front of us.
He lost his scar today. The thin, almost invisible one across his left cheek from when we went sledding when we were very young. I had wanted to go fast. That was such a long time ago. He had pushed me so hard that he fell and hit his face against the runner of the sled. I had called it a love bite. Blood in the snow. He had only grimaced, his small hand hovering over the cut but not touching a thing.
In my mind, I secretly sort and catalog each way his body changes. The sudden, hard bulge beneath his shirtsleeves arrives on a Tuesday in October. The white teeth and the flexible toes in December, like Christmas. The vibrant ridge of his backbone. The happy earlobes. The kiss of flushed, healthy skin on the back of his neck. Sometimes I stare at him and convince myself that I can see him morphing right there in front of me. But then I blink, or look down at my plate, or fall asleep. And the next time I look at him, something else is brand new. More of him is gone.
My husband doesn’t remember how we met. There’s a look on his face when I quiz him—as if he knows it’s not there, but he’s going to dig through his mind regardless and show me that he’s trying, that he knows how important this is.
My husband is a hearty lover. My husband is a good friend. He is a hearty, good man.
Now his hair shimmers in the sunlight. I ask him if he got highlights. I ask him who he’s trying to impress and tell him he doesn’t look any younger. He just looks at me with his blank smile, his hair beautiful in the sunlight.
We had a baby once, I say. Nine and a half years ago. Maybe that’s why I’m leaving, he says. Because of the baby. How long do you think she would have lived? I ask. If we had really had a baby girl? What name would you have given her? He looks at me with his beautiful, blank face. The strong plateau of his forehead does not scrunch or shift. I hate to say it, but it is almost enough when he places his big, flat hand over the top of mine. His hand is like a warm, tough palette of rising dough, and this is almost enough.
My husband used to have shoulders that sank when I laughed. Now his hair shimmers in the sunlight. I ask him if he got highlights. I ask him who he’s trying to impress and tell him he doesn’t look any younger. He just looks at me with his blank smile, his hair beautiful in the sunlight. When we hold hands he doesn’t seem distracted. He has a new job. We have new friends.
My husband used to have moles. He had a few angry looking ones removed over the years. He used to worry. I tried to reassure him each time and tell him that it wasn’t a big deal. It was just in case, that was all. He would mope around the house for days, sucked into the melodramatic daydream of his long, drawn out death. The drama was so tiresome. At night his ugly neediness would nestle in our bed like a solid, healthy baby, slumbering sweetly there between us. Now I try to trace all of the ghost places where little bits of him had been cut out by the dermatologist time and time again. I touch his perfect skin and wonder where they have gone off to—those shallow craters of shiny, stubborn tissue.
Where’s John? I ask while we are out working in the garden. He looks at me long enough to simply shrug.
When my husband began to leave bit by bit, body part by body part, word by word, our dog didn’t growl at him or sniff suspiciously. Not once.
When his laugh left—that hollow, sarcastic staircase of sound—I didn’t mind. I don’t miss the deep dimples above his knees. I don’t miss the way he used to talk to me while brushing his teeth, gesticulating violently when I couldn’t understand him. I don’t miss his bony wrists. I don’t miss the way he folded the laundry or how his wedding band bit into his finger. I don’t miss his smile. I don’t miss his nose. I don’t miss his scent.
Where’s John? I ask while we are out working in the garden. He looks at me long enough to simply shrug. The sun slants down and fingers his beautiful hair. His heavy work boot rests on top of the shovel blade. There is a long stretch of earth in our garden yet to be turned, and it vibrates with all of his magnificent, endless energy.
My husband used to make an entire pot of coffee in the morning, insisting that it was the only way to get the taste right. Now he makes four cups exactly and everything tastes fine. He tries to make up stories for me sometimes when we are in bed at night. He comes up with various tales about why he left, what mistakes the two of us might have made. There were fights, I tell him. I remember that, I say. We will be strangers together for the rest of our lives, trying to recreate a history that even I have started to forget. He knows that I am sad. That I regret things now. That I miss him. I pretend to get excited at the thought of our retirement years stretched out before us like an empty, flat ocean.
Once, and this was many years ago, my husband wept after I surprised him and tickled him. Once upon a time, I used to enter a room and see him sitting alone at a table, his back to me.
Sometimes I stay stretched out in the bathtub after I’ve opened the drain so that I can feel the suck and pull of the disappearing water. When the bath water is gone, I rest my hands on the molded roundness of my hips. There was something he used to say. There was something he used to hint at. In a painting, I could be beautiful.
Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s short story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O’Nan as the winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and will be published in early 2013. Sarah was also recently named a finalist for the 2011 Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, judged by Aimee Bender. She has received a waiter scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and has also spent time at Ragdale. Short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in several journals, including: The New Guard Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cream City Review, The Nebraska Review, and North Dakota Quarterly. Sarah is the current 2012-13 Pen Parentis Fellow. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University and now teaches creative writing at SUNY Fredonia, where she co-directs the Mary Louise White Visiting Writers Series.